Treats for tricks: Dogs test out incentive-based interactive toys
Here's the deal with dogs.
They're kind of like kids. You just never know what they'll like.
You'll shell out $35 on some fancy new chew toy that's supposed to provide hours of entertainment while simultaneously leaving your pup's breath minty-fresh. Champ will give the toy a quick courtesy nibble before abandoning it to gnaw on your bedroom slippers.
So I felt a tad skeptical after running across an article on hot new dog toys. Sure, they sounded interesting, but what would man's best friend think of them?
The only solution was to "test" the toys on my own dogs, Jake - a laid-back golden/Lab cross - and Kita - an inquisitive, 8-pound Pomapoo. I could learn firsthand which ones they would chew - or eschew.
I felt like a nervous stage mother as I pondered the experiment. What if they were befuddled by the toys, only to be shown up by some brainiac border collie in the neighborhood?
Not to worry. Jake and Kita were willing testers who eagerly chewed on special bottle holders, moved pegs, lifted fleece flaps and maneuvered rotating trays - all in the pursuit of food, glorious food.
It helped that I loaded the toys with homemade peanut butter-oatmeal dog biscuits. They smelled so good cooling on the counter that my husband almost ate one. (The recipe is on Page B3.)
The results of Toylapalooza follow, with bone ratings for each toy:
The Dog Fighter
Those Scandinavians sure know design. Case in point: The Dog Fighter by Swedish designer Nina Ottosson. This puzzlelike wooden toy basically looks like a preschool child's IQ test. Dogs have to move wooden pegs through a channel in the right direction to be able to remove the peg and gobble the treat underneath.
Our dogs would have played with it for hours, as long as the treats were constantly replenished. My only complaints: The puzzle is made with a soft wood, so if you left it alone with your dog during the day, you would come home to toothpicks. (Nina Ottosson's PR people assured me a more durable plastic version, The Dog Finder, will be available this spring.) Also, at a whopping $48, it's ridiculously expensive. (www.nina-ottosson.com, $48)
The Dog Treat Trapper
This toy is brilliant in its simplicity. In fact, I wondered why I hadn't thought of this myself so I could have hit the craft-show circuit and retired by age 40. It basically consists of six layers of sturdy fleece sewn together, creating 24 different flaps under which you can hide treats. If you've ever watched your dog nose through a laundry pile, you know how they love to burrow and dig.
Accordingly, our dogs reacted to this toy with gleeful exploring, pawing, snuffling and snacking. One complaint: I initially thought this would be the perfect diversion to leave out for our latchkey pups' unsupervised entertainment. But after five minutes of vigorous play, the toy's corners were already falling apart. (www.nina-ottosson.com, $50, available in the U.S. this spring)
The Dog Tornado
This plastic, bone-shaped puzzle consists of four rotating trays, each with recesses for concealing treats. As an added challenge, there are several plastic, bone-shaped shells that can be placed over certain recesses to heighten the challenge.
Kita, our Pomapoo, went nuts over this game, pawing at it, trying to stick her head between trays and even growling at
90-pound Jake whenever he got too close to it. It took Jake a little longer to get used to this one - probably because he had trouble squeezing his bulky Lab nose into the trays - but he eventually became a fan, too.
This toy seemed a lot more durable than The Dog Fighter, although it's still pricey ($42 at http://pawlickers.com).
Busy Buddy Tug-A-Jug
This interactive toy consists of a very sturdily built bottle - the same material is used in bullet-proof glass - capped off with a spiky rubber bulb. The vanilla-scented bulb is supposed to encourage dogs to chew on it, cleaning their teeth in the process. The bottle also contains a rubber rope that, if pulled out, will dispense treats.
On paper, this sounds like the perfect dog toy. But our pooches seemed baffled by it. Irwin and I tried to teach them how it worked, crouching down on all fours and pulling the rope to demonstrate how it dispensed treats. They would sniff at the bottle and paw it halfheartedly, then look at us as if to say: "Can't you just open it up and give us the food?"
Maybe our dogs just aren't bright enough. Maybe they're too spoiled and well-fed to work for their kibble. Whatever the reason, they seemed to think this toy was a real dog. (Premier Products, $20)
The Bottle Tracker didn't look half so impressive as the Tug-A-Jug. It consisted of a brightly colored bag made of firehose material, topped off with a nylon handle. Dog owners are supposed to slip a plastic water bottle or scenting materials in the bottom of the bag, which closes with Velcro.
I followed the instructions, slipping a few treats inside the water bottle before sticking it in the bag. From that point on, Jake became completely obsessed with it. He carried it off to a corner and began to chew on the Velcro end with the single-minded determination of a starving wolf feasting on a rabbit.
He seemed to love how the plastic bottle crackled inside the bag, and he was obviously motivated by the yummy smells inside. (Kita, on the other hand, didn't seem half as interested. Maybe it was too big for her.)
My one beef: I was disappointed to see how, after 10 minutes of Jake's admittedly aggressive chewing, the trim on the bag frayed. (To be fair, the manufacturers point out that this toy is meant to be used in interactive play, not as a chew toy.) (Katie's Bumpers, $14)
Peanut butter dog biscuits recipe
2 cups flour
1/2 cup milk
4 tablespoons peanut butter
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon chicken broth granules
1/2 cup oatmeal
Mix flour and milk until lumpy. Stir in peanut butter, cheese, chicken broth granules and oatmeal. Add egg and mix well, kneading with hands if necessary. (If sticky, add more flour. If too dry, add more milk.) On a well-floured surface, roll out dough at least 1/2 inch thick. Cut out with bone-shaped cookie cutters. Bake on lightly greased sheet at 400 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes.